No Place to Hide
Safeguarding in schools is sometimes shamefully poor. Is it time now for a change in the law so that teachers are required to report abuse? Jonathan West thinks it is.
A headteacher can know that a member of staff has raped a pupil on school premises, but even if the staff member admits it, the headteacher has no legal obligation to report the crime to anybody.
When I tell parents that this is the legal position regarding the obligations of their child's school, the reaction is always the same. There is look of stunned disbelief followed by the angry question "How can this be possible?"
In mainland Britain (Northern Ireland is different), it is not a crime to fail to report a crime, and the exceptions to this legal principle are few and narrowly drawn. The Mandate Now coalition of charities is campaigning to give staff working in "regulated activities" (schools, hospitals etc) a legal obligation to report suspected child abuse to the authorities and to protect whistleblowers when they report.
The forces arrayed against the campaign are substantial. The government is against it. Amazingly, the NSPCC is also against. The campaign is hampered by the fact that few members of the public realise that reporting isn't already mandatory.
The reasons for having mandatory reporting are obvious. Time and again, schools or other institutions have failed to report suspected or even known abuse. There is the case for instance of Father Nicholas White, a monk at Downside Abbey and teacher at the adjacent Downside School. He sexually abused a child in the late 1980s. He was caught and admitted the abuse to his Abbot. He was permitted to continue teaching at the school. He went on to abuse again, was caught again and this time was sent to Fort Augustus Abbey in Scotland. No report was ever made to the police, in fact the school went to the trouble of consulting its lawyers to see whether the school had an obligation to report. The lawyers said no. The police stumbled across the case more than 20 years later when they discovered the school's records in the course of a different investigation. In 2012 White pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 5 years.
Then there is the case of St Benedict's School Ealing. After the conviction of Father David Pearce in 2009 for a string of sexual offences spanning 36 years (he was also given 5 years), the school commissioned Lord Carlile to produce a report into abuse at the school. Carlile concluded that abuse had gone unchecked for decades. Several different monks and teachers had committed abuses. The abuse had been known about, but nothing had been done to prevent it. At the time of writing, a monk and two former teachers have been convicted, and the former Abbot, Fr Laurence Soper, is on the run from the police, a European Arrest Warrant having been issued for him.
It isn't just Catholic schools which suppress reports of abuse. In July 2012, Bruce Roth, a housemaster at Wellington College, was convicted of a series of offences against children and sentenced to 11 years. His victims were pupils both at Wellington College and his previous school King's School Rochester. Evidence given in court made it clear that concerns about his behaviour were known at King's School Rochester, but no reports were made to the authorities and Roth was permitted to go to Wellington with a good reference.
State schools can also fail to report. Nigel Leat pleaded guilty in 2011 to a horrifying series of abuses of children at Hillside First School in Somerset, and was jailed indefinitely. A Serious Case Review discovered that behaviour of concern by Leat had been witnessed by other staff on about 30 occasions. Eleven reports about it were made to the head teacher. None was passed on to the authorities. Leat probably abused children for much of his 14 years at the school. During that time there were two or three OFSTED inspections, none of which noticed any shortcomings in the school's safeguarding.
It isn't just abuse by members of staff which can go unreported. In March 2012, little Daniel Pelka, aged 4 1/2, was beaten to death. His mother and stepfather are serving life sentences for his murder. A Serious Case Review carried out by Coventry Safeguarding Children Board highlighted failings in a number of services. Most striking of them was the fact that Daniel had attended school for the last 6 months of his life. During that time, staff at the school had noticed his low weight, emaciation, constant hunger and visible but unexplained bruises, including what appeared to be strangulation marks on his neck. None of these concerns was passed to the authorities, and the SCR discovered that the school's reporting procedures were non-existent and that staff had received no safeguarding training.
In all of the cases described above, a prompt report of concerns to social services would probably have put a stop to the abuse and much harm would have been prevented. So why doesn't it happen? Before we can judge the answer to that question, we need to find out whether these cases are exceptional, or whether there is widespread failure to report and these particular schools were just unlucky that they got the publicity. The Pelka SCR listed safeguarding shortcomings at his school, but didn't investigate whether the same shortcomings existed at other schools in Coventry. I felt that this investigation needed to be carried out, and since nobody else was doing it, I decided to see what I could do myself.
Safeguarding standards in Coventry schools
I obtained the safeguarding and child protection policies for as many schools in Coventry as possible, to check them against a set of basic child protection criteria derived from the government's statutory guidance documents. I chose this approach for two main reasons. First, it was research I could actually do. As a member of the public, I had no right to look at case files, they would be confidential, all I could look at were policy documents. Second, I took the view that good practice is hard to achieve without clear written procedures, and that the Pelka SCR had given clear evidence of this. If written procedures are bad or non-existent, then the chances are that practice is no better.
About a third of Coventry's schools published their safeguarding policies online. For the rest, I had to write to each school requesting a copy of its policy. Even after I made it clear that this was a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act, a number of schools were surprisingly hesitant to disclose their policies. Eventually I obtained the policies for 114 schools, almost every school in the city. The task then was to evaluate them. I chose to check them against the following 10 basic criteria, all derived from statutory guidance.
- The policy names and briefly describes the kinds of abuse that is covered: physical, sexual, emotional and neglect.
- The policy describes the signs of abuse that staff should look out for.
- The school has a named designated teacher for child protection.
- The school has a named designated governor for child protection.
- The policy instructs all staff to promptly inform the designated teacher of allegations or suspicions of abuse, and sets out the procedure for doing this.
- It requires that designated teacher to inform the local authority designated officer promptly of all allegations or suspicions of abuse.
- All conversations informing the local authority designated officer are backed with written confirmation.
- The school commits to periodic safeguarding training for all staff, with advanced training for the designated teachers and head teacher.
- The policy does not depend on external documents for a description of any reporting procedures to be carried out by the school.
- The school policy has a publication date, and has been updated within the last 12 months.
These were chosen in order to concentrate specifically on a school's reporting arrangements. Far more than this is needed for a sound safeguarding policy, for instance this list includes nothing about safer recruitment practice. But I felt that these 10 items, if all were implemented in a school's policy, would provide a reasonable assurance that the kinds of injuries that Daniel Pelka suffered would get reported to social services.
I suspected the results might be poor. My guess was based on the knowledge we have uncovered about Jimmy Savile. Had institutional safeguarding arrangements mostly been sound with just a few poor places, then Savile would have restricted his activities to just those with inadequate safeguarding arrangements, and we would have learned of abuses in just a few locations. But in fact, he appears to have been free to abuse at almost every institution he came into contact with.
The Coventry results were dire, worse even than my worst expectations. Daniel's school scored 2/10, essentially completely useless. That was to be expected given the SCR. But 14% of Coventry's schools scored 2 or less. The average score was 5/10. Only two schools out of the 114 met all 10 criteria.
Five is a very bad score. Let me put it into context. In 2012 Jeremy Forrest abducted a pupil to France. After widespread publicity he was found, returned to the UK, convicted and sentenced to 5 1/2 years. The subsequent Serious Case Review castigated Bishop Bell School (where Forrest had taught) for its safeguarding shortcomings and failure to react to signs that there was something wrong. I've looked at the policy in force at the time. It scored 5/10. Half a procedure is no better than no procedure at all.
Had anybody noticed that safeguarding in Coventry's schools was so bad? Apparently not. OFSTED inspected Daniel Pelka's school Little Heath Primary a year before his death, and said this:
"Procedures for safeguarding pupils are robust; staff and the designated governor are well informed about child protection. Good practice in multi-agency work to support individual pupils is an example of the school's effective partnership work."
I've reviewed the most recent OFSTED report for each of Coventry's schools. OFSTED didn't have a bad word to say on safeguarding about any of them. When I disclosed my results to Coventry Education Department, their reaction was to point to the good OFSTED reports, even though they knew that OFSTED had failed to notice bad practice at Daniel's school.
Clearly something is seriously wrong here. If Coventry is anything to go by (and I have no reason to think the city is exceptionally bad) the government's statutory guidance is rarely effectively implemented, frequently implemented so badly as to leave children seriously unsafe, and sometimes flatly ignored. OFSTED often doesn't notice even shockingly bad practice.
The case for mandatory reporting
Would introducing mandatory reporting improve things? After all, it is one thing to recognise that failure to report is endemic, it is another to reach for legislation as the means of changing this. The NSPCC takes the view that mandatory reporting would not help, and has published a position paper on the subject. It is a confusing and contradictory document, and seems to offer two conflicting arguments. First, it argues that introducing mandatory reporting would generate so many reports that it would swamp social services, then later it argues that mandatory reporting wouldn't generate many additional reports at all. Both arguments can't be true at the same time, if the facts support the first argument, they can't possibly support the second.
But even ignoring the weaknesses of the NSPCC paper, the possibility that mandatory reporting might do more harm than good by generating a flurry of trivial reports has to be taken seriously. We don't want an improvement that actually makes things worse. The Mandate Now campaign seeks to guard against this by a number of means. First, the duty to report would only apply to those working in "regulated activities", not to the general public. Second, mandatory reporting would need to be part of a package of measures including training for those mandated to report and training for the LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer for child protection) who would have to triage the reports and decide which needed to be followed up. Third, the duty of social services is now and would remain primarily the welfare of the child, and prosecution would take second place to the more immediate needs of child protection.
In "Exploring the Contested Role of Mandatory Reporting Laws in the Identification of Severe Child Abuse and Neglect" Dr Ben Mathews of the University of Queensland has researched the effects of mandatory reporting legislation in the various states of Australia, most of which have introduced mandatory reporting in one form or another. His research indicates that introducing mandatory reporting does increase the number of reports generated, and that the proportion of "unsubstantiated" reports remains roughly constant. He notes that unsubstantiated reports are not necessarily wasted reports, they may successfully trigger an early intervention before any serious crime has been committed. He concludes that mandatory reporting, as part of a coordinated approach to child abuse, does have a beneficial effect, and that its effect can be optimised by tweaking the legislation so that it is clear what needs to be reported (e.g. by providing a clearly defined threshold for "serious harm" to a child), by improving the training of mandated reporters and those who receive the reports and by ensuring that there is an effective "differential response", i.e. a range of options that can be taken according to the nature and seriousness of the report. According to him, the NSPCC's concern about social services being swamped by trivial reports is unfounded.
There is another cause for concern. It may be that abuse is so grossly under-reported that social services on their current level of resourcing may be overwhelmed by the increase in serious and justified reports that would be caused by mandatory reporting. The Office of the Children's Commissioner in England has offered a most appropriate response to this issue.
“We consider that if child protection services become overwhelmed with genuine cases of abuse, then resources must be used to address these in accordance with the UK’s commitment under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children from all forms of harm.”
Why the case against is flawed
There are many reasons people hesitate to report suspicions of abuse. In schools for instance, a teacher may be new and uncertain, he might find himself up against an aggressive and vexatious parent who he might have to accuse, he might find it hard to believe that a senior colleague could abuse. The teacher might decide that there must be an innocent explanation for what he has witnessed, or he might assume that somebody else has already noticed it and the matter is in hand. The teacher (or other member of staff) may be inadequately trained and not know the right procedure or who the report should be given to. We all like to think we would notice abuse and promptly report it, but the evidence is that this is a very fraught process and failure to report is far too common, especially in cases where a colleague is suspected of having abused.
Even when a report is made, school management has reasons not to pass it on. All schools are dependent to some extent on their reputation, and an abuse scandal can do a lot of damage to a school. The temptation exists to find a way of protecting children without risking the publicity an external report might bring, so some schools seek to handle abuse cases "in house". While this might be done with the genuine intention of protecting children, in fact the only person protected is the abuser. If he abuses again, management dare not report the new case lest their earlier bad decision come to light, which would damage the school's reputation even further. By this means, a few schools gradually become honeypots for abusers, and by the time the abuse is finally uncovered, there can be several abusers operating there. Whistleblowers are rare, and are usually sacked for the sin of highlighting management failures to report abuse.
Something decisive is needed to cut through all this uncertainty. Mandatory reporting would achieve that. Everybody would know that they must report all concerns, and that these concerns must get passed on to the authorities. If management were to try and handle abuse allegations in-house, a whistleblower would be in a far stronger position, he or she would in fact be reporting the criminal activity of management in suppressing reports. Few headteachers would be willing to risk a spell in prison to cover up somebody else's abuses. The entire safeguarding culture would change as people understand what is required of them. Abusers will probably be caught much sooner before they can do so much harm, far fewer schools would become honeypots for abusers over decades, and it is likely that potential abusers would be deterred from abusing within institutions because of the high risk of being caught.
A similar cultural change has already been achieved on the subject of drink driving. 50 years ago, drink driving was not thought to be a particularly bad thing. A large number of people were killed or injured in accidents where a driver had been drinking. But the landscape has been transformed by a combination of laws introducing limits on blood alcohol levels, technology in the form of breathalysers, police powers to stop suspected drunk drivers, and public information campaigns about the risks and effects of drink driving. Drink driving is now much rarer, there are far fewer alcohol-related accidents, and couples routinely decide who will be the "designated driver" and so not drink when they go out, or they decide to travel by public transport instead.
This is the kind of cultural change that Mandate Now is looking to bring to the field of child protection. The change in culture will follow the legislation, as people gradually get used to the new rules.